Another day, another development project on Long Island

Why we need cleanups, not coverups, of industrial sites on Long Island: The case of EPCAL

The EPCAL site, upper left. An enormous contaminated plume of groundwater is moving southeast toward the Pine Barrens Preserve and Peconic River. Credit: Google Earth 

The EPCAL site, upper left. An enormous contaminated plume of groundwater is moving southeast toward the Pine Barrens Preserve and Peconic River. Credit: Google Earth 

As I scrolled down my Facebook feed on Wednesday night, I noticed something concerning, a news story posted by a guy in a local wildlife photography group I'm a part of: "LI developers win bid for 633 acres in Calverton." I was concerned because, a) being a trained scientist/science writer, the word "develop" and every derivation thereof usually indicates the destruction of something natural and the construction of something unnatural; and, b) I live on Long Island and so my NIMBY-senses started tingling. More projects? Not in my backyard. 

Calverton is a hamlet partly in the Town of Riverhead and partly in the Town of Brookhaven, which, in the 1800s was a farming community where cranberries were grown in swampy wetlands along the ecologically important Peconic River. In the 1950s, the U.S. Navy bought more than 6,000 acres of land in Calverton to create a Grumman jet finishing plant and jet test area, complete with two runways, an industrial site now referred to as "EPCAL." In the 70s, more than 1,000 acres was used to create the Calverton National Cemetery. In the 90s, Northrop Grumman (formerly Grumman) left the base and so the Navy began selling off the land. About 2,640 acres were given to the town of Riverhead, while nearly 3,000 acres of undeveloped land were given to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation for remediation and wildlife management and 140 acres were given to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to expand the national cemetery. 

Today, the unsold land--358 acres--are still owned by the U.S. Navy because they're still too contaminated to pass on to another owner, such as the state, a town or a private developer. The groundwater, soil and sediments under these 350+ acres are contaminated with heavy metals such as lead (think Flint: harmful to the neurological and biological health of humans and animals; can cause death), PCBs (industrial chemicals that can cause cancer, disease and death in humans and animals), SVOCs and VOCs (chemicals in fossil fuels that can also cause cancer, disease and death in humans and other animals), pesticides (chemicals used to kill insects that, you guessed it, can cause cancer, disease and death in humans and animals, á la DDT...which devastated wild bird populations in the 1960s and 70s). 

The article doesn't mention EPCAL's environmental legacy as a major polluter. Instead it focuses on jobs for Long Islanders. The article doesn't mention that, besides the 358 acres currently still undergoing cleanup, a gigantic groundwater plume contaminated with the same toxic chemicals found on the EPCAL site is expanding day by day, moving southeast toward the Peconic River and Long Island State Pine Barrens Preserve, two extremely environmentally sensitive areas. What's more, the state- and town-owned portion of the site is still undergoing some decontamination, just not at the same level as the federally owned part (apparently, it's not as toxic). So basically, the site is less-than-pristine and still contains potentially cancer-, disease- and death-causing heavy metals and chemicals.

Concerned, I tweeted the article and posted it on my own Facebook page. A friend from my running club commented, positing that it's probably best the already-developed part of the plant be transformed into something else industrial, rather than clearing out new land on the site, or elsewhere on the Island for that matter. To a point I agree: Building new buildings where there are already buildings rather than uprooting trees and draining wetlands is smart.

But EPCAL is not fully cleaned up and ready for reuse. "Reuse" in this case also involves demolition and new construction--digging up the ground and carrying away rubble--which will increase traffic generally through the site, kicking up contaminated dust and dirt. Extreme care will need to be taken to ensure runoff, construction debris, noise and workers' litter do not harm the sensitive parts of the site. Because construction on a toxic site is less of an exacting and sterile science than, say, measuring samples of toxic chemicals with a precise micropipette in a lab, I I have some doubts about whether that's possible.

What should be done is a complete federal cleanup not only of the EPCAL site, but of the plume which is seeping from under the site into Long Island's sole-source aquifer system; the underground complex of rock and water the whole island relies on for its drinking water. The government has done some cleanup of the site, but the plume, as I've elaborated, exceeds the boundaries of the site. 

It's ridiculous to think we're building on a toxic waste dump--disrupting toxic materials and possibly inputting more toxic materials instead of cleaning them up. During construction, oil and fluids can leak from vehicles and machines, paints and sealants can spill, exhaust will undoubtedly flow from both moving and idling trucks (why people leave trucks idling is a mystery to me). I feel bad for the people who are going to do construction and work there, and those who live near EPCAL. The EPA has said of the site it's still decontaminating: "Any future soil excavation would be performed in a manner that would minimize exposure to workers. Trespassers are kept off the site by a combination of fencing and security, and are not expected to come in contact with contaminated soil." 

The disruption of the contaminated soil, sediments and water at EPCAL is undoubtedly unhealthy.

This is why we need cleanups, not coverups, of EPCAL and other contaminated industrial sites on Long Island. EPCAL could be repurposed, or it could be demolished and returned into wildlife habitat, but should only be touched when completely remediated and safe for humans and animals.

Besides full cleanups, we need to reassess our values as a society. Are jobs (many of which will be temporary) more valuable than our health, wellbeing and environment? Is it possible to hold fulfilling, sustainable careers and live rewarding lives without poisoning ourselves and the environment?

I think so, I know so. We just need to shift our values and lifestyles. Think: drive less, use less plastic, build fewer malls, eat less meat, don't litter, install solar panels, recycle more, repurpose old things before buying new things, create a compost pile and most importantly, be informed about your environment. Toxic industrial sites are everywhere on Long Island, undoubtedly in your town. You can find them, and learn more about them, via the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory webpage

Poems about pollution


The world around us isn't always pretty. But the way words can describe even the most awful situations and places can be pretty powerful. Even beautiful, sometimes.

Northport Power Station, image from Wikimedia Commons,  Fmtownsmarty.

Northport Power Station, image from Wikimedia Commons, Fmtownsmarty.

On a recent Thursday night a good friend and I went for a drive around my town. We talked about hopes and fears, love and loss, present and future. 

I met this friend while enrolled in an environmental writing and media class in college. Like me, she's both concerned about the environment and a creative soul. 

Naturally the both of us are drawn to scenes of natural beauty: shimmering seas, soaring birds, rich forests. But we also have a fascination for the grotesque--the imperfect parts of nature: rippling rainbows of oil in mud puddles, plumes of plastic swirling in the oceans...and of course, the thick, soot-laden smoke pouring out of power plants.

Northport Power Station, February 2016...from behind the fence.

Northport Power Station, February 2016...from behind the fence.

It just so happens that the both of us live within a stone's throw of a power plant. For me, it's the Northport Power Station, for her it's the Shoreham Power Station. 

That night, we discussed the similarities and differences between our hometown power plants:


The hulking Northport plant runs on compressed natural gas that's piped in, like it is to most homes in the area, and also liquid oil. Shoreham's smaller plant, adjacent to the never-opened Shoreham nuclear power plant, runs on liquid natural gas, which is trucked in on tankers. 

Both are located on Long Island's North Shore, butted up against the Sound. In other words, if there were to be a major leak or explosion (caused by gas or oil or the other chemicals used in operating a power plant), a multitude of things that live in and near the Sound--including people--would be harmed.

Both plants are owned and operated by National Grid. Both are surrounded by tall, angry chain-link and barbed-wire fences.

Additionally, the Northport power station creates steam. To cool the mechanisms of the Northport plant, huge quantities of water are pulled from the Sound, sucking up fish eggs, insect larvae, fish and other marine wildlife, which get trapped in filter screens. During the cooling process, this saltwater heats up. Then, still hot, it's returned to the Sound, where it damages marine ecosystems and harms wildlife.... 

You can read more about Long Island's power plants--and the environmental harm they cause--in this environmental analysis.


That night my friend drove her Prius slowly, carefully through the dark roads that wind around the Northport plant's four red-and-white striped towers. Through clouds of steam, the towers' flashing red lights looked like alien eyes blinking at us from the liquid black sky, harsh and ominous. 

She parked and I hopped out of her car into the cold, late-winter night. I peered at the plant through the fence. Clinging onto the chain-linked armor that protects the plant from too much outside observation, I pulled myself up above some brush, trying to get a better view--a better idea--of what was going on there. But the plant--set deep into the middle of the property, way by the water, was too far away to see clearly. 

I returned to my friend's car, and we continued our nighttime adventure around the power plant. We discussed our hypotheses about why there might be so much secrecy and protection surrounding places like these: Places of pollution. Places that create energy and other industrial products. Places like Flint and places like Hoosick Falls. Places like her town, and places like mine.

So late that night, after my friend dropped me off at home, I wrote down what I saw so that maybe later, maybe one day, I will understand:


Smokestacks rise

into polluted skies.

Oh how darkness shrouds

dirty secrets and lies.


Miles of fencing 

Cuts through this seaside village

People have no say.


Imminent danger

surrounded by water

there is no way out.


Lingering thoughts:

  • Do you have a power plant in your town?
  • Does your town have a toxic legacy?
  • If you could live anywhere, where would you choose?

Also: I invite you to send me your poems of pollution. Shoot me an email: